Bosnia: Can there ever be peace?

[Green Left Weekly, #71, September 16, 1992]

For some months now, the nightly television news has been dominated by coverage of Somalia and Bosnia. The famine in the impoverished east African country and the fighting in the former Yugoslav republic have provided viewers with any number of haunting and deeply disturbing images.

Events in the two countries are also disquieting on a deeper level in that they seem to sum up a whole trend of world development as we near the end of the century — mass misery and starvation in the Third World, and everywhere a rise of national and ethnic conflicts. For many people in the West the problems seem to defy rational solution.

Occurring in a European country, almost half a century after the end of World War II, the struggle in Bosnia-Hercegovina strikes especially close to home. The ruthlessness and inhumanity of the Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing" recalls the atrocities of the Nazis.

The question naturally arises, can the peoples of the region ever live together peacefully or are national hatreds overpoweringly strong? Is there any basis for hope of a solution, or is the conflict fuelled by some dark, basic element in human nature rising to the fore?

Such notions must be firmly rejected. Rather than having recourse to supposed eternal “ethnic hatreds”, the explanation of the conflict must be sought in historical development and the operation of social forces.

The Bosnian crisis can be understood only on the basis of the history of the peoples and the regions that made up the former Yugoslavia, the disintegration of which led inexorably to the present fighting.

Historical origins

Today's Croats and Serbs are descended from two Slav tribes which first moved into the region in the seventh century AD.

Catholic missionaries from the West converted the Croats to Christianity and established the use of the Latin alphabet. Croatia's cultural and political orientation have been to the West. For a long period, it was a part of the Austrian Hapsburg empire.

Settling further to the east and south, the Serbs went through a quite different history. Early on they were converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. For many centuries, Serbia was part of the Turkish Ottoman empire.

In the middle ages Bosnia was the centre of the fiercely persecuted Bogomil Catholic heresy. When the Ottomans came, many of these Croatians converted to Islam — the origin of today's Bosnian empire disintegrated, the Hapsburgs moved in, and Bosnia and Hercegovina were formally annexed in 1908.

With the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up along national lines. The Croats, Slovenes and Serbs of the empire joined with Serbia and Montenegro to form a new Yugoslav (south Slav) state.

However, the new state was not set up as a democratic federal union with equal rights for all nationalities. Instead, the Serbian monarchy imposed its authority on the rest of the country by armed force and established a centralised, unitary state. From its very inception, capitalist Yugoslavia was built on Serbian oppression of the non-Serb peoples.

This act of violence, backed by the British and French, really marks the beginning of the troubled 20th-century relationship between Serbs and Croats, so rich in dramatic and tragic chapters.

Between the two world wars, the main issue of Yugoslav politics was the tension between the Serbs and the Croats, the biggest non-Serb national group. In 1928, for instance, Stepan Radic, the recognised leader of the Croatian people and a firm advocate of the federal reorganisation of the state, was assassinated by a Serb chauvinist in the parliament itself in Belgrade. It was in such a highly charged climate that Ante Pavelic formed the Croat separatist-terrorist Ustasha organisation in 1929.


On April 6, 1941, Hitler invaded Yugoslavia. The state collapsed shortly afterwards, its will to resist hopelessly compromised by the disaffection of the non-Serb peoples. The country was partitioned between the Germans, Italians and Bulgarians.

Three main indigenous forces contended for power.

1. Ante Pavelic's so-called Independent State of Croatia (or NDH from its Croatian initials) with its Ustasha militia. Although a puppet regime, the NDH initially enjoyed significant support as it appeared to many Croats as the realisation of the national goals for which they had fought for so long. Pavelic's forces carried out widespread atrocities against Serbs, Muslims, Jews and any Croats who opposed them.

2. The Chetniks, a Serb-chauvinist, monarchist movement which collaborated with the Nazi occupiers against the Partisans. Only at the end of the war were the Partisans able to break their grip on Serbia.

3. The communist-led Partisans. Over the course of the war they grew into a massive movement which waged a harsh and heroic struggle against the occupiers. The Partisans became the vehicle for a social revolution and carried the hopes of the peoples for a new, a to be created after the war. The Croatian people furnished considerable support to the Partisan cause. Franjo Tudjman, the current president of Croatia, was a Partisan general in northern Croatia.

The postwar period brought the consolidation of an anti-capitalist revolution and the establishment of a new Yugoslavia as a federal union of republics.

Bureaucratic regime

However, these undeniably great gains were compromised by the Stalinist, bureaucratic character of the communist leadership headed by Tito.

At the end of the war, the Partisans carried out large-scale massacres of their defeated opponents. Tens of thousands — perhaps even hundreds of thousands — of Croatian refugees were forcibly returned from Austria and killed on the grounds that they were Ustasha supporters.

With the overturn of the old order, the Serb-chauvinist tendency was not eliminated from Yugoslav political life but led a continued existence within the ruling Communist Party. The constitutional guarantees of equality between the nations meant little faced with the reality of the centralised, Serbian-dominated ruling party.

National oppression continued to exist in the new Yugoslavia. By any number of objective criteria, the Serbs constituted a privileged oppressor nation in relation to the Croats and the other non-Serb peoples.

The Croats made one great effort to change the system. In the period 1968-71, there developed in Croatia a tumultuous mass movement for democratisation and national rights, led by reform elements in the party and state leadership. This "Zagreb spring" can justifiably be compared with the Prague spring of 1968. The outcome, too, was the same. At the end of 1971, Tito unleashed a sweeping crackdown in Croatia. Tens of thousands were affected by the repression.

In its final years Yugoslavia faced a number of intractable problems. The economy was in crisis: living standards were in sharp decline, there was massive unemployment, hundreds of thousands (mainly Croats and Muslims) were forced to look for work abroad, and the country struggled with a huge foreign debt.

The national question was becoming explosive. In 1987 Slobodan Milosevic won supreme political power in Serbia on the basis of an open appeal to Serbian chauvinism inside and outside the party. In particular, he portrayed himself as the Serb leader who would deal with the Albanians struggling for their rights in Kosovo.


It was clear that bureaucratic, Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia would not be able to avoid the processes of change sweeping eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. A breakup along national lines became inevitable, particularly as Milosevic would not countenance any democratisation of the state.

In 1991 Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. Later Macedonia and Bosnia followed suit. Montenegro remains linked with Serbia in a rump "Yugoslavia". Kosovo, with its overwhelming Albanian majority, and Vojvodina, with its mixed Serbian, Croatian and Hungarian population, were formally annexed by Serbia in 1990. Hitherto they had been autonomous provinces within the Serbian republic.

Thus, the second attempt in a century to achieve a united state of the "south Slavs" has come to an inglorious and bloody end. What should we conclude from this? Is it impossible for the peoples of the region to live together in a common home?

There is actually no historical basis for such pessimistic conclusions. There was no animosity between Croats and Serbs, for instance, prior to 1918. In fact, the idea of a "south Slav" state was popular with the Croats. But the project was hijacked by the monarchist proponents of a "Greater Serbia": democracy and national equality went by the board, and a repressive centralised system was imposed on the non-Serb peoples.

This Yugoslavia — monarchist, capitalist, dominated by imperialism — collapsed in the turmoil following the Nazi invasion. During the wartime struggle, Tito and the communists won wide support with their program of a new Yugoslavia as a federation of equal republics. However, despite some very real advances on the national level, the reality increasingly fell short of the noble ideals proclaimed in the constitution.

The conclusion that should be drawn from the Yugoslav experience would seem to be that real national equality is a fundamental condition for the viability of a multinational state, especially one as heterogeneous as Yugoslavia. The bureaucratically distorted version of socialism established by Tito could not accommodate either real popular democracy or genuine national equality.

Any further attempts to realise a union of the "Yugoslav" peoples obviously awaits radically new developments. Meanwhile, in line with the wishes of the various populations, the whole trend is to consolidate independent states.

It should be noted, however, that with the exception of Slovenia, not a single one of the new republics is ethnically homogeneous. Each contains a significant proportion of national minorities. (Bosnia, of course, is — or was — thoroughly heterogeneous, with no nationality constituting a majority of the population.) Thus the question of democracy and national rights is by no means solved simply by the formation of new states. It is also worth noting the character of the leaderships of the new republics. In the main these are conservative, pro-Western regimes committed to implementing "free market" policies. Many former "communist" bureaucrats have acquired "democratic" credentials in the new ruling parties and administrations.

A 'Greater Serbia'?

Milosevic resisted the break-up of the old Yugoslavia. When it was clear that this was impossible, he concentrated on creating a "Greater Serbia" by grabbing parts of Croatia and Bosnia. The pretext was that the Serb populations outside Serbia were being persecuted and could only be protected in an exclusively Serb state. But since everywhere the Serbs live intermingled with Croats or Muslims or Hungarians, the Serb-chauvinist forces have resorted to a horrifying "ethnic cleansing" on a massive scale.

Milosevic's pretext was simply that. There is not the slightest evidence that Serbs in Croatia or Bosnia faced persecution prior to the outbreak of warfare. It is clear that many of these Serbs are completely opposed to the dirty war being carried out in their name. Small but significant numbers of Serbs serve in the defence forces of Croatia and Bosnia. But in the occupied areas where the Serbian army and the Chetnik militias rule, any Serb dissenters are terrorised into silence and acquiescence.

Of course, a war of this nature is far from being the best environment for nurturing national harmony. The development of anti-Milosevic, anti-Chetnik feelings in the Serb communities in Croatia and Bosnia is also not going to be helped by the activities of right-wing extremist Croat organisations such as the Party of Rights and the HOS, its armed militia, which glorify Pavelic and his Ustasha. But it is precisely the Serbian war of aggression which has created the breeding ground for such reactionary currents.

Road to peace

Bosnia, with its intermingled population of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, best exemplifies the national heterogeneity of the Balkans. Even a cursory look at an ethnic map of the region will show the impossibility of separating the populations along national lines. Any attempt to do so would involve tearing apart the living tissue of society.

Before the present war the various communities in Bosnia lived together reasonably amicably. The March 1992 referendum showed a widespread desire to preserve Bosnia as an independent state. But Milosevic and the Chetniks refused to accept this and launched their dirty war with its train of horrors.

Can the bloodshed and repression in Croatia and Bosnia be stopped? Can peace and justice be established in the region? While the forces which will achieve it are not yet clear, the political basis for such a settlement is rather more obvious. There are a number of fundamental points:

1. The hypocritical UN arms embargo on Croatia and Bosnia must be lifted. Nominally in force against all the countries of former Yugoslavia, it has had no discernible effect in hampering the Serbian war effort; it has only hindered their victims from defending themselves. In this situation, Western food aid to Sarajevo and other besieged Bosnian cities is a cruel fraud. Serious peace talks will only follow Serbian military setbacks.

2. Serbia must withdraw its forces from those parts of Bosnia and Croatia which it has occupied and end its aid to the local “irregular” forces (the Chetniks).

3. All the refugees must be allowed to return home — Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Peace seems scarcely possible on any other basis. The Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing has created a tidal wave of Croat and Muslim refugees and has even expelled Hungarians in Vojvodina. But the it is also clear that Serbs have been forced from their homes by Croat and Muslim forces in some areas.

4. All the former Yugoslav republics must be allowed to form independent states on the basis of the borders established in the 1974 constitution. Border changes made by force must be rejected; any changes should be made through negotiation and with the full consent of the population concerned. The present borders may be far from perfect and there may indeed have been injustices committed when they were originally drawn, but any other approach is a formula for perpetual national conflict.

5. Macedonia, already independent, should be granted full international recognition. Kosovo and Vojvodina should be allowed to determine their futures, free of Serbian pressure.

6. Bosnia must be supported as an independent multinational state. Partitioning Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia or otherwise breaking it up on the basis of ethnic cleansing would be a recipe for endless violence and hatred. The only viable solution is a unified state with wide autonomy for Muslims, Croats and Serbs and real respect for the rights of minorities in any area (Croats in a predominantly Serb area and so on).

Whatever the immediate course of the struggle in Bosnia and the other countries of former Yugoslavia, we should not be pessimistic. The pages of the historical record detail many dismal episodes but they also give ample grounds for hope that the peoples of the region can eventually find a way to live together and cooperate in building a better future.